4 ways to use data to tell stories


I’m a contrarian about the “big data” revolution. I fear a world where corporate communication and marketing focuses on data at the exclusion of the human beings those numbers represent.

On the other hand, I’m a strong believer that this proliferation of data analysis, when fused with qualitative insights and human storytelling, can bring stories to life like never before. Increasingly, we are seeing how compelling use of data, combined with strong storytelling, can create memorable narratives in journalism, in entertainment, and in marketing and communications.

Here are four key ways that communication professionals can combine data and storytelling to create a particularly compelling way of understanding the world.

1. Let research and data show the scope and scale behind human stories

Journalists have perfected the craft of making human experiences the face of a story, while then using available data to talk about the broader context of that story.

Today, marketers and corporate communicators have more opportunity than ever before to connect research and data with stories of real people—whether through the content the company is publishing directly or in the stories that they pitch to media outlets. But many organizations have not invested in the resources and skills to conduct robust data analysis, or—on the other end of the spectrum—have become so enamored with data that the numbers aren’t being connected with examples that take us deep into the context of what these trends mean in people’s lives.

Global professional services firm EY (disclosure: a client of mine) has become a master at making this connection. EY has long been known for having its finger on the pulse of entrepreneurship.

And, increasingly, EY has demonstrated that knowledge and connection with entrepreneurs by highlighting entrepreneurs’ individual stories alongside regular quantitative research on global entrepreneurship patterns. The result is a steady, year-round set of stories that demonstrates both the breadth of entrepreneurship trends happening around the globe and the depth of stories of individual entrepreneurs in their particular market.

2. Draw direct connections between data analysis and on-the-ground stories

Too often, even when organizations attempt to combine quantitative insights with case studies, the connection between the two is not that direct.

That’s why stories in which individual anecdotes connect quite directly into larger data sets can be particularly valuable, such as iSeeChange, an initiative of Localore and KVNF Mountain Grown Community Radio in Western Colorado.

This project, which calls itself “crowdsourced climate change reporting,” maps temperature patterns in Colorado for the current year alongside the 30-year average, and connects those larger weather data trends with anecdotes, submitted by farmers and ranchers throughout the area, regarding what they see on their own farms on a daily basis.

The resulting weather almanac provides both the scope of large weather patterns over time alongside how variations in those patterns affect individual farmers on the ground. The initiative brings the massive scale of scientific data into direct contact with the on-the-ground impact those trends are having.

ISeeChange is a "crowdsourced climate reporting" initiative in Western Colorado. Individual reports on weather and farming conditions are consolidated to give a bigger picture of what's going on in the state's climate.

3. Bring data to life through visualization.

Another way to give data true impact in storytelling is through using innovative visualization techniques to show what a quantitative trend really means.

For instance, a data set might be expressed through metaphor in an infographic (the amount of earth now covered by landfills is roughly the land surface of X country, for instance) or through showing how a trend has evolved over time.

One of the most compelling examples I’ve seen is data visualization studio Pitch Interactive’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” a site that uses time lapse to show, month by month, the death toll from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The site painfully displays  the rising body count of children and civilians as the visualization progresses from one month to the next. The main page displays the overall death toll, while a “victims” tab then provides brief stories about who was killed in each individual drone strike.

Pitch Interactive developed this interactive site to show the human impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Watch the full animation.

4. Let data analysis help shape and even become part of the story

No storytelling company is better at using data in compelling ways to impact a narrative than World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

Many of its weekly shows air live, and WWE uses its ability to track and analyze data on fan engagement in real time. This tracking allows WWE to do everything from having announcers talk about what fans are talking about on Twitter in real time during the show, to giving fans the chance to choose stipulations for the next match during the commercial break (steel cage match or street fight?), or even to identify and correct storytelling mishaps in real time.

For instance, one night, one of the characters at the beginning of a live TV show said something which contradicted a storyline detail. Fans took to social media to complain. WWE, which was tracking discussions about the show in real time, saw the anger about the gaffe and took it to the writing team to find a fix. Later in the same show, the announcers brought up the contradiction in the character’s story and proceeded to give an explanation that closed the continuity gap.

Corporate communicators have only scratched the surface of how qualitative and quantitative analysis of the data we’re collecting about what people say about our company might help us likewise identify and correct the continuity errors in the story we are telling about our organizations.

The big data era provides us with many new possibilities for telling compelling stories for our organizations. But that can only happen if we don’t lose sight of what makes a good story in the first place and marry that data analysis with the sort of human insights into the hows, the whys, and the cultural patterns that data alone can’t provide.

This article was originally published in IABC’s Communication World Magazine.

Sam Ford

Sam Ford

Sam Ford is director of audience engagement at Peppercomm, a strategic communications and marketing firm headquartered in New York City. Twitter: @sam_ford
He is also a research affiliate with Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT, an instructor in the Popular Culture Studies program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.
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